If you’re not familiar with the Sierra Club, try this: it’s the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization! Today, we’re honored to interview Aaron Mair, recently voted as 57th president of the Sierra Club. In our interview, Mair speaks about his history with, and future for the Sierra Club, and how everyone regardless of age, race or gender has a role to play in preserving our planet.
Mair brings decades of environmental activism, and over 25 years as a Sierra Club volunteer to the table. As the first African American president of the club, he emphasizes that he wasn’t voted for any color other than how badass green he is.
Our founder, Alyssa Ravasio had a chance to speak with Aaron. See their conversation:
Hipcamp: Happy Founders Day, or, happy birthday to the Sierra Club!
Mair: Happy Founders Day to you! What’s really cool is that not only is it the birthday of the Sierra Club, I’m the age of John Muir when he helped found this organization. So when you think about the founding of this organization on May 28th, 1892, it’s really a unique circumstance. What’s neat is that the real movers and shakers of the movement were young millennials in their day, similar to Hipcampers. Joseph LaConte was in his twenties.
Hipcamp: Could you tell us more about why and what happened that made you start down the path of environmental activism in life?
Mair: I’ve always been in touch with the environment, my family were farmers who came North to escape a segregated South in the 30s and early 40s. Growing up in the early 1960’s, I was always surrounded by my more traditional southern family farm values even though I was raised in Westchester, New York.
Back in the early ‘60s we didn’t have subsidies for food, so hunting, fishing, and hiking were a necessary part of life. We relied on nature’s bounty in Peekskill, NY and the Hudson River valley. In the traditional sense, we actively were stewards and used the environment not only for our enjoyment, but for nurture as well as nature.
Hipcamp: Can you talk a little bit about the events that led you to environmental activism from the standpoint of protecting human health?
Mair: One of the things that I learned being raised during the civil rights movement is that no matter where you are, you’re always stronger as part of an organization or association. One of our core family values was to be organized and be a part of some community association, so wherever I moved I would look to the Urban League and NAACP as model entities to express and advocate for community and cultural solidarity. When these organizations were not available then I would collaborate with others to build new groups to achieve social, political, or environmental justice.
When deciding where I wanted my daughters to grow up, we moved to the City of Albany’s, Arbor Hill in upstate New York, which was also next to one of the oldest urban nature preserves. Because of city neglect, the area was actually left pretty wild, which was great! So I built a house right nearby, and all was great until we started noticing particulates and soot covering anything and everything. From that experience, I realized there was something more going on. The soot was coming down as heavy as a small drizzle of rain, and I realized our house was built in the wind pattern of a nearby government run garbage incinerator.
My daughter began to develop respiratory issues, and other kids in the community were having similar issues. The garbage incinerator was impacting the environment in not only a visible but physical way, and the community had accepted this as something in their ambient background.
At the time, local community based organizations didn’t involve environmentalism, and because of this I created my own community-based sampling with the assistance of Dr. Ward Stone that ultimately led to the closing of the incinerator.
Hipcamp: Do you have advice for people who want to make a difference but feel overwhelmed?
Mair: Our role is to choose to be an exploiter or a steward.
Biblically-speaking, mankind’s role in creation has always been that of a steward. A steward takes from the environment what they need but also holistically works with the environment to replenish it, so it’s left for the next seven generations, and can be shared with the community. Living within and giving back to a place creates this symbiotic relationship.
Then there’s the other part of our nature, which is the exploiter side. The materialist, industrialist, capitalist model that exploits the environment to exhaustion. Through extreme exploitation of our natural resources (without a care of of how how things are interconnected and symbiotically dependent) we seen that the species around us are dying off at alarming rates, and eventually, like the canaries in the proverbial coal mine, you’re (mankind is) next.
Exploitation is a disease. We should be good stewards and not waste what we have. If one organism in creation has to have it all, what’s left for the all other living things? And when people ask me if you can be both (exploiter and steward), I’d disagree. Why must we have as a value in this country to exhaust something until it is no longer there, to extinction. At a core level, it is a disease.
Thanks to our national obsession with extreme resource exploitation that feeds our over consumption at all levels of society; we observe that the number one disease in the nation is obesity. Hipcamp is on top of the young demographic, and by encouraging engaging with the environment, and getting outside, we can walk that illness off.
Hipcamp: What is your single biggest challenge as you step into the role as the 57th president of the Sierra Club?
Mair: That I have so much ground to cover in the little time that I have. We must own the damage that has been done by past and current generations; but not accept it. Collectively, we must become the stewards or change we seek. I’m using this position to bring us to a place where we can all be stewards. The opportunity to reach out to younger people is not a challenge that I fear but one that I embrace. When John Muir was in his fifties, it was the millennials of his time that fueled his leadership.
The youth of our great nation are already at a space of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I seek to use this new opportunity as president to engage, inspire and help lead the Club to be a welcoming, diverse and nurturing space that gets the other side of the river of privilige so we can get beyond what divides us, and link ourselves globally to the planet that binds us. The reality is that there is no “planet B.” Some people may think they have a plan B, but it’s nowhere what we need to save the planet and ourselves.
Hipcamp: What are your personal beliefs on why access to the outdoors is so important and how does the Club’s current focus on moving beyond fossil fuels support this?
Mair: Our species created these artificial controlled environments called homes. Being outside develops a healthy respect for the cycles of nature and of stewardship in our environment. We and our children are conditioned early on by an education process that disconnects us from the outdoors. If classes have five days inside, why not have an entire day (out of five) for outside instruction, a whole day to learn how your environment impacts your life?
The environment is the great equalizer. The environment doesn’t know race, it doesn’t know what you have. To the environment, I’m just one organism dependent on a complex webs of other organisms. Those who exploit nature for the creature comforts created by coal plants, to oil refineries, and the material byproducts they create; but what we need to do is become better stewards or nurturers who point to our open spaces, waterways, and how we are getting ourselves connected back to these places. Not only will we get ourselves better connected, we’ll rediscover the old ways of using what we need, cleaning up and maintaining our environment for the next generation. Through good stewardship, restoring and maintaining the environment, we can not only fix but reverse the damage that has been done.
To the extent that we’re kept inside, accumulating stuff, and selfishly hoarding as if we’re the only ones existing, as long as we’re playing that game, all of the diseases that go with it will be our undoing. We will exhaust our finite resources that for short term generational gain of a few; but at what costs? Remember, Earth will be fine! One million years from now, Earth will be fine. Our future will note that mankind will be the only species that wasn’t taken out by a meteor or natural disaster; but we’ll be taken out by Exxon.
Hipcamp: Can you speak to the significance being the first African American president of the club?
Mair: Being African American isn’t what’s special. It’s recognizing that all of us regardless of our race or gender need to be and do more for the planet. The Club voted for a hardcore, kickass advocate and activist. They voted for someone who made GE dredge parts of the Hudson River. They voted for someone who took on a government-run garbage incinerator that was poisoning thousands of people, and had it shut down. When people voted for me, they voted for how badass green I am.
Hipcamp: According to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), half of the employees in park service leadership positions are scheduled to retire by 2016, which could lead to even more understaffing for the national parks. How is the club reaching the younger demographic to be the next generation of leaders?
Mair: We’re very mono cultured right now and there is significant room to improve. The environmental movement needs to be diverse so that we can have a professional feeder pipeline of qualified multi-ethnic professionals that will replace an aging (but mostly white) workforce. Additionally, our nations seems to overly obsessed with producing workers who feed the highly polluting tech sector at the expense of all other sectors of our civil society. Today, the “model american” with good future prospects is someone who is connected to tech sector, legal, or medical professions. Unfortunately, being a farmer or forest ranger are not seen as top profession that the next generation should consider. There are lots of things that we used to do that we don’t do anymore because of how we value and view the path to the economic “top.”
The Club has a range of entry internship opportunities to get the next generations to consider careers in environmental stewardship. We also have numerous grassroots opportunities whereby the next generations can gain and learn how to wield real grassroots power. The Club has also developed new digital platforms for social engagement that actually empower the activist to leverage their limited resources in innovative ways. More importantly, the Club is intentionally working on how to be a diverse, welcoming and dynamic place by which the next generations of activist would be proud call home. As our population grows, our finite natural resources, and pristine places face increasing threats and challenges because are even more desirable, and accessible. We need millennials to expand the umbrella of opportunity and help our species restore its failing value of stewardship over exploitation. Let’s not have a side conversation about the need for youth in the movement, but be upfront about the matter!
Hipcamp: What’s the number one piece of gear you take on every camping trip?
Mair: Baseball cap.
Hipcamp: What’s on your baseball cap?
Mair: “Enemy of the State.” An enemy of the state is a truth teller; one who speaks the truth that threatens the state even at great personal cost. Everyone should get this hat!
Hipcamp: If you could ask John Muir anything, what would you ask him?
Mair: What was up with your disrespect with people of color and Native Americans? Especially his unflattering comments about the Native Americans of Yosemite Valley.
Hipcamp: We read that you are challenging President Obama to come meet you where Roosevelt and Muir met. Any progress?
Mair: I need your help! Like when Muhammad Ali went after Sonny Liston, I’m calling the president to come speak with me on effects of climate change. The drought crises in California and declining glaciers in Yosemite illustrate the clear challenges we face as a nation and planet relative to settled climate science. 100 years ago, the president of the Sierra Club came together with the President of the United States to save what was left of our then natural wonders; why can’t the two presidents come together again to talk about sound solutions and policies to save the planet.
Hipcamp: Any final words?
Mair: Stay green, stay connected, stay involved.
True to Mair’s own beliefs in a community force for change, we created Access Land alongside the Sierra Club, REI, Code for America and other leaders to bring the larger community together, and demand a better system that encourages digital innovation to get more people outside. Show your support for change, and act now: http://accessland.org/
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